In 2021, I read an article by art historian Bridget Quinn titled “What Should We Call the Great Women Artists?” I was already struggling with the questions of what to call Sigrid Schultz in the book I was working on.* I was fascinated by Quinn’s argument and taken with her voice. I immediately added her to the list of people I wanted to contact for my series of Women’s History Month mini-interviews the following March.** (You can see her interview here.)
Almost two years after that interview, I finally read Broad Strokes: 15 Women Who Made Art and Mad History (In That Order).
Here’s the short version of what I have to say: Wow!
Here’s the short version of what Quinn has to say: “The careers of the fifteen artists that follow run the gamut from conquering fame to utter obscurity, but each of these women has a story, and work, that can scramble and even redefine how we understand art and success.”
In the introduction, Quinn tells the story of how she came to realize that women artists had existed, even though few of them appeared in the Big Fat Art History Book that was used in almost every art history class taught in the United States in the last 50 years, H.W. Janson’s History of Art. She continued with the journey that led her from that revelation to the book in my hand.
The fifteen essays that follow are dazzling. Quinn is erudite, witty, and passionate. She places each woman in not only her art historical context, but her larger historical moment. By the second essay I had lugged my copy of Janson off the shelf so I could look at the art work Quinn references. (Yes, I recognize the irony.) When Jansen failed me, I turned to Google. She traces major themes across the essays: the recurrence of missing mothers and artist fathers, the similar challenges the women faced across the centuries, the difficulty of finding information on the artists. More, Quinn sets each woman within the context of her own intellectual and emotional journey, telling us how each artist entered her life and what it meant to her at the time. Her analysis is consistently insightful. Her interaction with each work is personal, and inspiring.
As you can tell, I am a fan. If you are interested in smart writing, women’s history, or looking at art from a different perspective, this one’s for you.
*It took me another two years to make a decision.
**I’m running the series again this March, with a fascinating line-up of creators working in the field of women’s history. Don’t touch that dial.
Bridget Quinn has written a full-length biography of one of the women she explores in Broad Strokes. Portrait of a Woman: Art, Rivalry and Revolution in the Life of Adélaïde Labille-Guiard will be released on April 16. I can hardly wait.